• Those who know me and my reporting/reviewing style, know I am a stickler for proper grammar, formatting and wording. In my opinion any report should be not only technically correct, but organized, well written, and easy to understand. Words, and how we use them really do matter. Even minor errors in wording can lead to mis-interpretation, embarrassment for the report author, and potentially serious financial or legal consequences. Here then are a few things for consultants to consider when choosing their words.

    Be Clear in What You Say
    It’s important that report users and stakeholders understand all aspects of the report from the initial scope of work to the final recommendations. These items should follow a logical progression where the observations and findings lead to, and support, the conclusions. Any limitations or deviations should be addressed and a defensible rationale provided, especially if they could affect the report conclusions. For Phase I ESA reports, stakeholders always want to know if a Phase II ESA is needed, and for Phase II ESAs they need to know if contamination is present and what next steps to undertake; so be very clear in your conclusions and recommendations.

    Be Careful What You Say
    Too often consultants can get tripped up by their own choice of words, especially when it comes to obtaining regulatory approvals or a favourable peer review. Be careful in the way you describe site or environmental conditions at a property. Calling an area with some cat-tails a Wetland, or conversely mis-labelling a Provincially Significant Wetland as a low-lying area; can potentially lead to big problems. The writer should also be wary of over using ‘red-flag’ words such as ‘contamination’ and ‘environmental impacts’, until/unless such ‘potential impacts’ are confirmed to have resulted in ‘actual contamination’. Careful consideration should be given to accurate use of other descriptors such as ‘minor’, ‘significant’, or ‘wide-spread’.

    Be Concise In How You Say Things
    Most reports have a lot of data to present, and often get very technical, lengthy and hard to digest for many readers. The writer should spend time reviewing data and organizing their thoughts before report writing in order to present the data in a concise and logical manner. Where possible, avoid repetition; although some regulatory formats include and require repetitious sections. Strategic use of tables, bullet-points and acronyms (include a glossary) can cut down on wordiness, and save a few pages of reporting.

    Be Descriptive In Your Choice Of Words
    I sometimes read a report that describes “a big pile of dirt out back” or “area of interior staining” that were observed at a site. While we strive to be concise in our wording, we must also avoid being overly vague. Consider providing a more quantitative and qualitative description of such items, which will be more useful to report users and reviewers. A better description for the above would be “a stockpile of apparent topsoil with occasional rubble and brick inclusions, with an estimated volume of 100 m3, located along the midpoint of the south property line”. Or, “surficial oil-like staining on the concrete floor in the NW corner of the production area, measuring approximately 5m2 in area”. Strive to be accurate, concise and descriptive at the same time. Its not as easy as it sounds.

    In summary, it’s just as important what you say (report), as how you say (report) it.

    Bill Leedham, P. Geo., CESA
    Bill is the Head Instructor and Course Developer for the Associated Environmental Site Assessors of Canada (
    www.aesac.ca); and the founder and President of Down 2 Earth Environmental Services Inc. You can contact Bill at info@down2earthenvironmental.ca